Why Peanut Butter-Stuffed Onions Were A Staple During The Great Depression

Unlikely food combinations are nothing new, though some stretch the imagination more than others. To many people, that would include peanut butter and onions, which became a staple food during America's 12-year Great Depression. The marriage of onion and peanut butter went deeper than simply existing side by side on a plate; the two distinctly dissimilar foods were united in a phenomenon known as peanut butter-stuffed onions. 

Fortunately, this curious combo of a nut butter and bulbous allium wasn't served raw. It was cooked with a dollop of peanut butter stuffed into a hole cut through the onion's center, joined by some bread crumbs. As the culinary mates roast together for about a hour in a hot oven, the peanut butter apparently expands while the onion lightly caramelizes. This process creates a somewhat dubious taste sensation, according to modern-day food explorers attempting to replicate it. So, how did it ever became a prominent menu item in American kitchens?  

Call it a product of the times. During the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1941, Americans suffered a major stock market crash, extensive unemployment, the Dust Bowl drought, and an eventual entry into World War II. Food was scarce, and many families went from bountiful tables to bread lines and soup kitchens. The official Bureau of Home Economics stepped in by presenting affordable meal ideas, including peanut butter-stuffed onions. After all, onions contain healthy vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while peanut butter provides valuable protein and help bellies feel full for longer.

Peanut butter and onions have more history

In addition to Depression-era government agencies touting previously unthinkable food partners, the duo of peanut butter and onion has some side history as well. America's beloved pen-pusher Ernest Hemingway was known to coat a peanut butter sandwich with thinly sliced onions, joined by a spread of salted butter on the adjoining slice of white bread. In fact, he even immortalized the combo in his novel "Islands in the Stream," calling it the Mount Everest Special, which later became known colloquially as The Hemingway. 

Theories abound on whether the two ingredients pair well together. For most people, it's an unqualified no, but peanut butter and onions do reportedly contain similar sulfuric components that could complement one another when eaten together. Advocates of the combo claim the pungency of raw onion is tamed by the sweet, thick peanut butter, balancing the two flavor sensations. That theory may not draw in new fans at face value, but more subtle versions of the pairing do exist. 

If you're a fan of Thai cuisine, you've likely experienced the concept of creamy peanut sauce paired with stir fry dishes, noodles, spring rolls, and curries — many of which contain onions. And most Thai peanut sauce recipes are made with peanut butter rather than whole peanuts. That gives a bit more credence to the pairing, but mostly as a subtle side effect rather than an intentional flavor tango.